Project Management, Table for One
How to effectively manage projects when you’re flying solo
The life of a freelancer is a (mostly) thrilling and adventurous one. Each day brings new opportunity with the changing winds and seas. I imagine myself as a sailor, venturing out to unknown waters as my waistcoat billows in the wind, ready to battle any pirates that try to take my ship, weather the squalls, and map out new worlds. However, my seafaring metaphor falls apart when I remember that I don’t have a trusty crew to help me navigate the way.
It’s just me.
As a solopreneur, I’m responsible for only myself, and that includes my projects. I’ve researched productivity science, project management methodologies, and the tips, tricks, hacks, and apps to support what’s amounted to the Kraken, if you’ll allow me to go back to my original metaphor.
Freelancers aren’t always flying solo, and solopreneurs aren’t always freelancers. However, they have one major thing in common: They need to manage projects, their time, and their workflow in a world of products and methodologies that are geared toward teams.
Here’s how you can craft a project management system that works for you.
What is Project Management?
It may sound obvious, but project management is, essentially, the management of tasks, resources, and people to bring a project to fruition. It gets harder, not easier as you might imagine, to achieve this on a solo basis, because you have to wear multiple hats. While this is exciting and certainly an ego boost if you do it well, it does present some challenges if you’re flying solo.
There are several methodologies for project management, all of which are geared toward teams. The best known in the United States is Agile, which was originally created for software development teams but has applications to any industry. The core concept of Agile is that you modulate your workflow according to feedback from stakeholders or clients. Along the way, you emphasize collaboration over siloing, flexibility over rigidity, and iteration over singular deployment.
Of course, all freelancers and solopreneurs do this whether they mean to or not. You listen to clients’ feedback, then put the deliverable back in to the queue if they want changes. You do A/B testing in your marketing campaigns, then adjust your approach if necessary. You produce work on a regular, repeating schedule, rather than saving it all up to the end of the quarter. Agility is the key to success whether your workload is ever-shifting and unpredictable.
Choosing a Project Management System
With your methodology in mind, you can move forward with designing a system. To be successful, you need to be able to shift between the birds-eye view and the granular view, accurately estimate and track your time, and keep notes and files close at hand. A project management app can help with this.
Most project management apps are designed to work well with Agile. However, they’re also generally skewed toward teams. Whether out of ignorance or aversion, many new freelancers and solopreneurs avoid these apps and resort to listing everything on papers or notes scattered around their desktop, whether physical or virtual. That’s a recipe for lost time and missed deadlines.
It’s true that some of these apps are overkill for teams of one. That said, you can often hack them to work for you. They don’t have to entirely replace your scribbles on a legal paid or trusted bullet journal. Consider them a tool for helping you shift between those views that I talked about.
Hacking a Project Management App
Project management apps are programs like Asana, Trello, and Basecamp, to name a few. They tend to have the following characteristics:
- the ability to sort work into “projects”
- the ability to list and organize tasks
- a place to store and share files
- customizable views to get a snapshot of work
- a means of estimating or tracking time needed to complete tasks or projects
The last characteristic is what’s super important to you as a freelancer or solopreneur, and it’s something that basic to-do apps such as Todoist or Wunderlist just don’t have.
We’re going to take a look at Asana, one of the most popular project management apps. Although it’s geared toward teams, it’s actually pretty sweet for freelancers, because you can make different “workspaces” with all your projects within and help yourself compartmentalize your work. Asana also integrates with Harvest to allow you to track your time from within any task. This integration is free.
After you’ve created an account, the first thing to do is to establish your different workspaces. To do so, select your initials/avatar at the upper right and click on “My Profile Settings.” Then, choose “Create a New Workspace” under the “Account” tab. Once you’re done, you can switch between workspaces by clicking your avatar.
You can see that I have a Marketing workspace and Client Management workspace here. I created this account to demonstrate Asana, but in my actual system, I have the following workspaces and projects:
- Outreach Copy
Marketing and Web
- Social Media
- Web Presence
- Content Marketing
- Blog and Medium
- External Pubs
Writing (For Clients)
- [projects listed per client]
Web (For Clients)
- [projects listed per client]
Yours might be organized by the type of work you do, whether or not you’re working with other people, or the projects themselves.
Once you’ve set up your workspaces, it’s time to make a project. Asana has a lot of useful templates, but I wanted to share my way of hacking Asana as a CRM.
List your leads and customers as tasks. Use the description to give a basic overview of their interest. Attach any relevant files, and make notes to yourself in the Comments section.
Using tags, you can quickly color-code customers and clients according to what services they want (or whatever other criteria you’d like to sort them by).
Then, you’ll have a fully functioning CRM! Of course, the best CRMs are automated. Fear not. Using Zapier, you can funnel email inquiries, Typeform entries, or any other source of leads right into Asana as a task. Brilliant!
Asana offers a lot of templates to get you started. Just remember, you can always have conversations with yourself to keep your notes straight!
The Key to Good Project Management
Project management boils down to identifying the cues that will keep you on track. If you’re flying solo, you don’t have other people providing these cues. These cues stem from the characteristics of your organizational scheme. They’re based on the following attributes:
- Time Needed
- Domain of activity
- Due date
If you’re the type of worker who schedules everything according to when it’s due and simply flows down the pipe, you might consider organizing your Asana tasks by time-linked attributes, such as “Projects, Week of September 15” or “Projects, Month of October 2019.”
If you prefer to tackle similar types of work within a block of time, organizing your projects by domain of activity might help you avoid distractions and get into the mindset for the tasks at hand.
If you work in different locations, it can sometimes be hard to shift gears. Organizing your projects by work location, e.g. “Home Office,” “Head Office,” “Coffee Shop,” can help.
Your second level of cues might be a string of comments, color-coded tags, your organizational scheme, or reminders. In many project management apps, you can hack these functionalities to suit your needs. As I mentioned above, the comments section of a task is a great place to track your notes and questions, log phone calls, or even vent frustration (hey, no one can see it!). And tags can be whatever you want. I used “domain of activity” out of the list above, but you can also use any of the others, e.g. “home office, more than one hour, onehourtop, toppriority” etc.
If you’re happy with your to-do app–Evernote–napkins system, more power to you. However, a project management app can provide you the flexibility to shift between an overview of all your work and the tiny details of each task. It can provide you with a single place to collect all project files. Finally, it’s a great way to mentally organize your tasks and motivate yourself to get stuff done. And that’s the ultimate goal of productivity.